- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2018

Candidates won’t be the only ones sweating the vote as California and six other states hold primaries Tuesday, as election security officials say they are bracing to see how their systems hold up against an expected wave of cyberattacks.

U.S. intelligence agencies say Russian hackers tried to disrupt both the campaign and vote-counting in 2016 and that they fully expect another wave of online attacks this year. Hackers last month sabotaged an online debate among congressional candidates by streaming gay pornography.

Federal officials say Russian hackers targeted election systems in 21 states two years ago, although no evidence surfaced that any result was corrupted by the incursions. Tuesday’s primaries will be the largest single block of states voting on one day ahead of November’s fiercely contested midterm elections and the largest election day since November 2016.

“This is an issue that the administration takes seriously and is addressing with urgency,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats told Congress in a joint statement last month at a briefing on election security and cyberattacks.

State and federal officials readily acknowledge that fears linger from the 2016 experience, and leading U.S. intelligence officials have issued repeated warnings that Kremlin operatives are prepared to strike during the November midterms, but many have also noted positive moves to improve communications among states and the Department of Homeland Security.

Congress has also approved $380 million for states to tighten cybersecurity as voters start to determine the balance of power in Congress and in statehouses across the nation.

While Republicans have pointed the finger at the Obama administration for failing to act faster in 2016, Democrats have criticized President Trump for not doing more to focus on the issue of Russian meddling as the election season intensifies.

Reinforcing consensus findings from U.S. intelligence agencies shortly after the 2016 vote, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has been studying the matter for more than a year, weighed in with a detailed report on Russian targeting of election infrastructure during the campaign.

Committee members also blasted Homeland Security officials for their initially inadequate response to the threat but added that cooperation and communication had greatly improved in recent months.

Raising the alarm

Election officials from New Jersey to California have been in the headlines raising the alarm in recent days.

On Monday, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla told reporters that the state had “done everything that we could think of doing — not to just assess what happened in 2016 but to fortify our defenses.”

“We’re not considered a swing state,” he told The Washington Post, “but we’re still California and from a security standpoint a high-value target, so we’re taking it very seriously, to protect our election process and the integrity of elections.”

Several states have reported accelerating efforts to retrain current staff, hire more staff, upgrade security networks or hire consultants to inspect their systems for weaknesses.

Election officials have also pushed to switch back to traditional paper ballots and machines that produce paper trails that can audited — one of the core recommendations of the Senate intelligence committee report.

But fears remain that voters in some states, including New Jersey and Mississippi, will be relying Tuesday on aging electronic machines that have no paper trails and are considered vulnerable to hackers.

As for the hackers in California last month, the sabotage of the debate for candidates vying for the 1st Congressional District seat of Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican, occurred during a broadcast online and by radio station KFOI 90.9 FM.

The forum featured a Green Party candidate and a Democrat, according to local TV station KRCR, and was proceeding normally until a video feed showing sexual acts between two men filled the screen for several seconds.

Debate moderator Chris Verrill could be heard saying, “Looks like we got hacked again. We’ll try to fix this,” before the broadcast was shut down.

Mr. Verrill later told KRCR, “We had a community forum, and while it’s disappointing people did not respect us or the candidates or, more importantly, the democratic process or the community, that’s part of the way democracy works.”

Russia does not seem to be chastened by the U.S. accusations or the rush by state election officials to bolster their defenses.

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday again ridiculed the U.S. indictment of 13 Russians accused of trying to interfere in the 2016 vote, The Associated Press reported, scoffing at the notion that a person described as his chef could interfere with a U.S. presidential election.

Special counsel Robert Mueller in February charged Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman dubbed “Putin’s chef,” and 12 others in an alleged conspiracy to meddle in the 2016 election.

Mr. Putin dismissed the charges as ridiculous during an interview with Austrian public broadcaster ORF late Monday, the AP reported.

“How low the Western information and political environment has fallen if a restaurateur from Russia could influence elections in the United States or a European country,” the Russian leader said.

The 13 people indicted are accused of an elaborate plot to disrupt the U.S. election. The plot supposedly included running a huge social media campaign from their headquarters in St. Petersburg, dubbed the “troll farm.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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